A new SAM show is a foray into our environmental history

The Seattle Art Museum's newest exhibit contrasts dewy landscapes with darker visions of environmental history. Curator Patricia Junker explains her fascination with the monumental painting that prompted it all.

Crosscut archive image.

Albert Bierstadt's Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast is on exhibit at the SAM.

The Seattle Art Museum's newest exhibit contrasts dewy landscapes with darker visions of environmental history. Curator Patricia Junker explains her fascination with the monumental painting that prompted it all.

Visitors to the Seattle Art Museum's new show of 19th- and early 20th-century landscape painting and photography, Beauty and Bounty, enter through visions of Eden. Albert Bierstadt's painting of Yosemite is bathed in a golden evening light like a dessert wine poured across the canvas, with deer standing peacefully at the water's edge. Much of the show follows this beatific vision of the unspoiled wilderness — although Bierstadt and other artists certainly had a sense that they'd better see and record it quickly, before it was spoiled.

The paintings and photographs at SAM represent quite an all-star cast. The room that displays paintings of the Hudson River school, includes
a John Frederick  Kensett view of Narragansett Bay (for the geographically challenged, think Newport, Rhode Island near the mouth, and Providence at the head), works by Church and Cole, two images of Niagara Falls, and lakes Placid and George. Later on, you see Carleton Watkins' stark photo of Cape Horn at the west end of the Columbia Gorge, taken when the river was still a river, not a series of lakes backed up behind hydro dams, and the views of Yosemite that made him the 19th-century Ansel Adams. You also see Thomas Moran's Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, with Yellowstone Falls tumbling from pale cliffs — a smaller version of his best-known work.

At least on the surface, most of the works present a peaceful view of the country that was going through rapid industrialization, pitched battles over labor organizing, the rise of Jim Crow legislation, and the Civil War. The water is dead calm in Sanford Robinson Gifford's 1875 view of Mount Rainier looming over Commencement Bay with two Indian canoes in the foreground. 

But the mood grows less idyllic when you get to Darius Kinsey's great black-and-white photographs of early 20-century loggers, the big trees they cut, and the clearcut wastelands they left behind. None of the artists painting or photographing the Northwest before Kinsey focuses on the trees. They do mountains. They do water. They do mountains and water. They do not do the forests that awed visitors and fed the region's economy.

Things aren't too peaceful either in the centerpiece of the exhibit — SAM's own Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast, painted by Bierstadt in 1870. Native fishermen have drawn and are drawing their dugout canoes onto a strip of beach beneach a rocky outcrop, while filtered sunlight shines on the pale granite slope of a mountain rising directly from a further curve of the beach. Offshore, to the right, a great wave swells beheath a dark, stormy sky.

This clearly isn't Puget Sound. Indeed, curator Patricia Junker explains in the exhibit's catalog that it's actually Baker Bay on the Columbia River, just upstream from Cape Disappointment. In 1863 Bierstadt spent 20 hours on a San Francisco-bound steamer here, waiting out a Pacific storm. But it's not really Baker Bay, either. It incorporates things that Bierstadt may have sketched in Yosemite, elements he may have seen in Japanese prints.

"A large studio production like Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast is a synthesis of information provided by the artist's field sketches, his studio models . . . and popular print and text references such as [James] Swan's authoritative guide  The Northwest Coast, Or, Three Years' Residence in Washington Territory to the landscape and people's of the Northwest coast," curator Patricia Junker writes in the catalog. She believes the wave in the piece may be a "highly informed quotation from the work of Hokusai, newly popular among the New York art elite at this time."

"I'm convinced that he's looking at [Hokusai's] Great Wave, she says.

This may not be a painting of any recognizable place, but it is based on recognizable details. To suggest where he might have found the details of the native fishermen, the exhibit includes two small model dugout canoes from Bierstadt's private collection.

Junker, who recently won the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Patricia and Phillip Frost Essay Award for scholarship in the field of American art history, has devoted the entire catalog to an essay on Bierstadt's "Puget Sound." Why the narrow focus?

Bierstadt was an iconic figure of 19th century western landscape. His career is well known, she explains, but no one had ever researched this painting or this stage of his life. She herself spends her working life compiling thick files on individual paintings, and enjoys the opportunity to actually use that information.

Ever since she arrived here four years ago, Junker has thought about exhibiting Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast, along with a few other contemporary paintings. When the Museum of Modern Art put together a show of western photography, she considered bringing it here and showing the Bierstadt as part of the package. But she decided that the show was — not surprisingly, given its origin — "too New-York-centric."

Next, Junker wanted to show the Bierstadt with a small supporting cast of other works. SAM's former director, Derrick Cartwright, said he liked the idea, but that she should broaden it, drawing the additional works entirely from local sources. It turns out that there are a lot of local sources. Most of the works in Beauty and Bounty come from private collections in this area, and some have never been seen publicly before.

In addition to broadening the show, "Derrick and [SAM board president Maggie Walker] had this idea about landscape and the environment," Junker explains. They saw a connection. SAM's 1998 exhibit of Thomas Moran's paintings packed in the visitors, and programs built around the Moran show that touched on preserving the land were especially popular. Based on that history, "there was a thought that this really had resonance" in the Seattle community. Junker herself thought it was a nice idea, but she was a bit skeptical about the connection. 

That is until she began reading about the late-19th- and early-20th-century argument between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot about the fate of the nation's forests. Muir wanted to save them as wilderness. Pinchot wanted to log them sustainably. Seen against that background, the Darius Kinsey photographs of early 20th-century logging had real environmental significance, though neither Muir nor Pinchot advocated the kind of take-no-prisoners clearcutting that Kinsey documented. Loggers left slash on the ground, hauled out the big trees and moved on. Land owners didn't replant, and stopped paying taxes. Fires roared through the slash. County governments took over acres of charred stumps. People with a thought beyond tomorrow started worrying about the future of Washington's timber supply. Once Junker started thinking in those terms, she realized that much of the exhibit was tied to the start of the environmental movement.

Some of the connections require a bit of conjecture: Junker suggests that a mid 19th-century painting of a pristine Niagara Falls may have been a subtle comment on the tawdry commercialism that surrounded the falls at that time. Other connections can be made with a good deal of hindsight: Take Cleveland Rockwell's 1882 scene on the Columbia River, where a little rowboat has pulled a fishing net almost all the way across the stream. By that time, guys fishing from little boats had already started taking a toll on the Columbia's salmon runs — although most people were quick to deny the reality of what was going on. One late 19th-century visitor commented that every bit of the Columbia seemed to be strained through fishing nets, and it was a wonder that any salmon got through.

Some works and artists have a direct connection to 19th and early 20th-century environmentalism. Moran and the photographer William Henry Jackson created images of Yellowstone that helped persuade Congress to make Yellowstone the world's first national park in 1872. Park advocates showed their paintings and photographs to members of Congress. It worked.

“The power of this Western imagery cannot be overstated,” Joni L. Kinsey writes in Splendors of the American West: Thomas Moran’s Art of the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. “During the lobbying for the park bill, after Moran’s and Jackson’s pictures were made available, popular descriptions of Yellowstone changed dramatically. Within just a few months the region was transformed in the public’s imagination from a kind of hell on earth to a spectacular ‘wonderland.’ Tones of reverence and awe replaced the earlier satanic references.”

Moran's Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in this show is a smaller version of the painting by the same name that hung in the Capitol rotunda soon after the vote.

This all pre-dated late-20th-century environmental groups' efforts to win support for preservation by publishing coffee table books filled with photographs of the wonderful places that most voters would never see. Moran wasn't painting for any environmental group. He and Jackson visited Yellowstone in 1871 as part of the government-financed Hayden expedition. Jay Cooke, the president and main promoter of the Northern Pacific Railroad persuaded Thomas Hayden to take the two artists along at his expense. He thought a national awareness of the great scenic attraction along its route could help the Northern Pacific sell bonds.

This kind of arrangement wasn't unusual. When Bierstadt visited the Northwest in 1863, a steamship company comped his trip up the Columbia. He talked about another trip to the region in 1871, but he never took it. Instead, he went to California to paint Donner Lake from the Summit, an idealized view from the point at which the first transcontinental railroad crossed the Sierras, for Central Pacific Railroad baron, Collis P. Huntington.

There was evidently no railroad baron waiting in the wings for Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast. Still, Junker suggests in the catalog that the issues that made the painting  "a timely expression of a country's collective vision" were indeed "railroad building and land speculation in the Pacific Northwest."

Commission or not, the stars aligned for Bierstadt's production of Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast in 1870 — seven years after he had visited the Northwest. A tremendous surge of national interest in Puget Sound coupled with a distinct ebbing of interest in Bierstadt himself to spur the artist on. His views of Yosemite had grown familiar, Junker says, and there was "a growing sense among the critics that . . . 'we've seen this before."'

The critics also carped about his content, scoffing that "'sticking a few deer in here does not make this a good picture.'" At the same time, journalist Fitz Hugh Ludlow — his companion on the 1863 trip up the Columbia — published a book about the journey that omitted Bierstadt's name. In the interim, Ludlow's wife had divorced him and married Bierstadt. 

So Bierstadt had something to prove. And a perfect time at which to prove it. Which he did. Kind of. Junker believes that the painting may not have been publicly shown after December 1870, when it seems to have gone right into the private collection of the China merchant A.A. Low. Bierstadt was only grudgingly accepted at the Centennial Exposition in 1876 and when he died, in 1902, the New York newspapers barely noticed. Still, artistically, Junker believes he pulled it off. In her opinion, after his view of Mt. Landers in the Rockies, which hangs in the Metropolitan Musem of Art, this is his best painting.

Junker acknowledges that some people in the museum world believe you can't justify a show of this kind unless the works matter to edgier, more contemporary artists. "There seems to be a thought," she laments, "that there needs to be a contemporary response to make the art important." Too often, she notes, "there's a tendency to say [that mainstream American art painted in earlier periods] was so narrow, it was so exclusive, [and to ask] does it really represent our multicultural country?" Though Junker rejects that idea, she was still glad to find that all of the contemporary artists represented in SAM's accompanying show, Reclaimed: Nature and Place Through Contemporary Eyes, "have a real affection and a deep connection to this art."

It's a remarkable collection, and Junker explains that if owners willed or donated these paintings to the museum instead of keeping them in family collections, in 25 years it could become the Seattle Art Museum's landscape gallery. If so, it would be one of the 5 best such collections in the country. Nothing could touch it this side of the Art Institute of Chicago or Fort Worth's Amon Carter Museum, where Junker worked before she came here. And there's a lot more where they came from. These paintings, culled from private collections, "are just the tip of the iceberg," she says.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.